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How to develop and leverage your online community

Author: 
Jessica Napier, Communications Officer

“People are hungrier than ever for information,” says Jennifer MacMillan, senior communities editor for The Globe and Mail. “Newspapers can tap into this hunger by building a community of readers around their brand.”

MacMillan shared her insights on how papers are using social media to cultivate an online community during the recent Canadian University Press conference in Toronto.Building a community helps newspapers to reach new audiences and develop relationships with established readers. Newspapers can use their community to explore new forms of reporting and improve their journalism.

“By engaging with readers and building a network around your content, you enable readers to become active collaborators in your journalism,” says MacMillan. "If your readers feel a strong connection to your newspaper brand, they become advocates for your journalism in their own communities both online and offline."

MacMillan outlines some specific strategies newspapers can employ to develop and leverage their online community. 

Social Media

With so many social networking sites available –Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, FourSquare, LinkedIn and Pinterest to name a few–MacMillan stresses the importance of selecting the right ones for your publication. “Don’t try to do everything if you don’t have the resources,” she says. “Decide what’s most appropriate for your newspaper brand and focus on those sites.Twitter and Facebook usually facilitate the most user engagement and value for readers while LinkedIn can be an excellent research tool for journalists who are looking for information about certain individuals or who need to find experts for stories.

MacMillan recommends using Hootsuite and Facebook to program and schedule social media activity ahead of time, but newspapers should also operate accounts manually if they have the resources to do so. “Tweeting manually can be a way to tease your readers,” says MacMillan, “you can be a little provocative; ask questions that will make people want to respond and click through to your story.”

Collect Feedback

MacMillan encourages newspapers to engage with readers by collecting live feedback and measuring sentiment. Set up polls on your website or Facebook fan page and ask readers to vote on specific issues. If there is a lot of discussion surrounding a particular article or issue, collect Twitter reactions and turn them into content with Storify

"You always want to respond to reader emails, tips, Facebook comments and tweets to let them know they’re being heard," says MacMillan.

Don’t ignore the comments

Although reader comments can sometimes be problematic, it is important to be responsive to your engaged readers and encourage discussion. The comments section can become a hub for intelligent debate and exchange.

Reader contributions can also be leveraged to develop new content. If a reader offers an interesting or though-provoking story in a comment, follow up with them. Dig deeper and get to know your readers, it might lead to you to an exciting new story opportunity.

Develop crowd-sourced content

MacMillan suggests hosting live interviews and Q&As on your website in order to encourage reader contributions. People like having access and being able to talk directly to newsmakers; give them access by asking them to submit questions and contribute to the discussion via social media.

Live blog breaking news – develop crowd-sourced content by encouraging readers to submit comments or photos from the scene. Developing interactive graphs, maps, charts are another way encourage people to engage with the story even further.

Be transparent

Ask readers to submit corrections for your errors and be open about your mistakes.

Give readers a behind the scenes look at how the newspaper comes together through blogs, videos or supplementary content. MacMillian also recommends building up journalists’ online profiles so they can connect directly with readers.

In the UK, The Guardian hosts “Open Weekends” and invites readers into the newspaper building to watch live demonstrations, debates and interviews featuring newspaper staff. The publication brings its community together physically and in real-time to enhance reader loyalty.